It’s ironic that as I crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge to attend an urban apologetics conference in Philadelphia I encountered the very religious pluralism that makes conferences such as these a necessity. As my weathered SUV pulled up to the stoplight, I could see the Marcus Garvey–inspired Pan-African flag pirouetting in the wind, and I could hear the amplified, yet muffled, sound of a man’s raspy voice through a bullhorn. He, along with a group of other young men and women, stood on the median with their faces contorted like clenched fists yelling, “Black Power, Black Power,” while others bellowed, “the black man is God!” at passing pedestrians and vehicles.
At the next intersection, a well-groomed man in a fitted black suit, with a tightly-knotted black bow tie, walked up and down the dividing line of the highway selling bean pies and handing out Nation of Islam literature, an entrepreneurial practice that has existed since the early 1930s.
Finally, after parking and inserting some quarters into the meter, a voice behind me yelled: “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (which means “peace be unto you”). I turned around and an older Muslim man with a dyed, carrot-color beard beckoned me over to his table to see his merchandise. “Are you interested in buying some of these organic, scented body oils, beloved? I have ‘Black Coconut,’ ‘China Musk,’ and ‘Arabian Sandalwood.’” After listening to his sales pitch, I bought two scented oils for $10 before heading into the conference.
Traditional African Religions Have an Appeal
As an inner-city dweller, occurrences like these transpire on a consistent basis because our cities are hubs of religious diversity, expression, and practice. While some urban religions such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America were birthed in the early part of the 20th century, other religious preferences such as ancient African faith have existed for centuries and are often more appealing to people of color than traditional Judeo-Christianity because they are faiths practiced by the ancestors of the African Diaspora. While the ancestral connection is undeniable, abandoning Christ for traditional African religions is unnecessary. As our ancestors understood, West African cosmology comports well with Christianity because the gospel clarifies rather than contradicts pre-existing African theological and social structures.
Furthermore, for many of the slaves who practiced traditional African religions prior to arriving on Southern plantations, Christianity elucidated their theology because it was fastened to a set theological convictions and practices that already fit their existing presuppositions. This contributed to the boom of Christianity among slave populations. God used stories such as Moses and the Exodus and Christ and the resurrection to strengthen the resolves of slaves in the face of trials and displayed his preeminence over their indigenous African deities. Therefore, leaving Christianity for a traditional African religion exhibits a lack of understanding of the richness of Christian theology and our enslaved ancestors’ connection to the faith.
Why Are People Leaving Christianity for Ancient African Faiths?
In a recent article published on Vice, a young lady wrote about her journey from Christianity to an ancient African faith after the passing of her father. The article, which read like a journal entry, recounted how she found solace in the religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa. They were the largest ethnic group trafficked in the Mid-Atlantic Trade, in what we would call Togo, Benin Republic, and Southwestern Nigeria, today. Their religion, which is generally referred to as “Yoruba religion” or “African traditional religion” had more appeal to this young woman because it lifted her out of grief in a way that she felt Christianity could not.
Her piece impaled my soul because, as a pastor in one of America’s notorious inner cities, her experience reminded me of so many of those who I’ve met and engaged with about faith; and, sadly, this trendy turn to African traditional religion is especially prevalent among millennials who have become frustrated with the church’s apparent duplicity in communal engagement.
The shift displays a lack of understanding of Christian theology and history, and more closely mirrors internet propaganda than reliable scholarship. But from my experience, understanding the increasing prevalence of African traditional religions in the mainstream in recent years is a valuable tool to have in our apologetic toolbox. Researching the historical debate among scholars about the continuity between the traditional African faith and Christianity gives pastors and churchgoers helpful ways to respond to this trend.
Adherents of African traditional religion rail that they “want to worship the god(s) of their ancestors,” because they believe Christianity does not appeal to their religious sensibilities, engage their oppressive predicament, or affirm their ethnic culture. In the face of these claims, it is imperative to diversify our apologetic arsenal to provide clarity about why we choose to cling to Christ rather than abandon him.
The Allure of Lemonade
While inquiry about West African spirituality has been discussed for centuries, it moved into the mainstream in early 2016 when acclaimed artist Beyoncé released her Grammy-winning album, Lemonade. Accompanied by short films that illustrate musical concepts and high production values, she drew upon the imagery of one of the most revered orishas (deities) in the Yoruba pantheon, Oshun. In her video “Hold Up,” she dawned the fluorescent yellow dress of the goddess of love and fertility who’s often depicted as wearing the same garb.
She gained even more notoriety for her use of West African spirituality again during her Grammy performance. In what some consider an ode to black America, Beyoncé, dressed as the beloved deity, captivated the stage with her vocals and paid homage to West African tradition that has also spread into parts of the Caribbean and South America.
Her performance not only catapulted West African spirituality into the mainstream spotlight, but her album and subsequent performances highlighted the diversity, complexity, and layers of faith of traditional Yoruba religion. Conversely, it also aided in clarifying misconceptions many individuals, especially those in theologically conservative evangelical circles, often have about the intricate matrix of religious thought in Africa.
Africa Is More Than Huts and Lions
The word “Africa,” often conjures images of lands untouched by modernization, a vast continent of raw material and resources. Though the land is valued—as a source for raw materials—the mind of the African often is not. The intellectual prowess and the complexity of faith of African people groups in general, and West Africans in particular, are often overlooked.
Our perceptions of the continent are reinforced by Hollywood’s depiction of people living in huts and wearing loincloths while dying from malnourishment and autoimmune diseases. Similarly, the faith of people on the continent is often reduced to fetishism (i.e., the worship of an object with mystical powers) which is actually practiced broadly around the world.
Because we are impaired by our cultural biases, when Christianity is represented as a product of the West, as opposed to the Middle East, some urban dwellers view the faith as unpalatable. They see Christianity as an Anglo-dominated religion that is irrelevant when dealing with the issues of black and brown people, while African traditional religions seem to better match their cultural sensibilities.
They often fail to realize that Christianity has existed in Africa so long that it can be considered an indigenous religion, especially in North Africa. While it is harder to trace its development and expansion into West Africa, many scholars believe that Portuguese explorers were the first to bear the name of Christ to West Africa in 1458, before the first African slaves were brought to American shores. For pastors like myself who serve in the inner-city context, this has become an urgent issue of apologetics because it is imperative to discover the link between the truth about African spirituality and faith in Christ in order to defend the faith knowledgeably and truthfully.
The Debate Within the African American Community
The debate regarding the continuity between African traditional religion and Christianity has been raging since the early 19th century. According to theologian Tony Evans, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that the black church was the only institution that started in Africa and survived slavery. Contrary to Du Bois, historian E. Franklin Frazier believed that there was no correlation between the black church and ancient African religious practices. He believed that because of the lack of cultural transference, the African American experience in America is a new institution with no historical reference.
In recent years, historian Henry H. Mitchell argues in his book Black Belief: Folk Beliefs of Blacks in America and West Africa that Du Bois was correct in his assertion. Black faith in America today, as he states, is a carryover from traditional African religions and thus to think of the black church as a mere variant form of white missionary endeavors is historically inaccurate.
Mitchell argues that Southern plantations were hubs of cultural transference. Slaves brought their culture, influences, habits, religious inclinations, and a myriad of other aspects from their past to the United States. Furthermore, because of the “re-Africanization” of plantations, with new slaves constantly being bought from Africa, these Southern homesteads were bastions of African cultural heritage.
The sustaining and reinforcing of this heritage was aided by the development of the “invisible institution” where slaves developed a new community and the role of the black preacher, who in African traditional religion passed down oral traditions, was solidified as civic leader and primary religious communicator. Because of the African religious sensibilities that permeated everyday life, the religious predispositions of Africans assisted, not thwarted, their capacity to understand the Christian faith.
Mitchell argues, rather convincingly, that Europeans simply affixed Christian theology to preexisting theological and social structures. Like the altar in Athens to the “Unknown God,” (Acts 17:23) Christianity, inherently, would not have been alien to the West Africans arriving at American Southern plantations.
In spite of the varied forms and systems, religious consciousness permeates every portion of African life; secularity has no reality in the African existence. As Nigerian scholar J. Omosade Awolalu explains in his book Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, contemporary African scholars believe that generally all people groups of Africa believe in a supreme, self-existent deity who is responsible for the genesis of man, maintains the heavens, and brought into existence the subordinate deities who are his functionaries and the intermediaries of his theocratic universe.
The Gospel Clarifies African Faiths
The gospel, therefore, brings clarity to African traditional religion because it places the transcendent deity of the African cosmology in proper context. Through the Yoruba religion, theology was communicated through the Odu, a binary symbolic system that serves as a vehicle of oral tradition. As Evans argues, in the Odu, Oludumare is seen as magisterial and supreme beyond other deities. Within the African cosmology, this supreme deity, who is also known as Mungu, Mulungu, Katonda, Ngai, Asis, and other names among African tribes, presides over the pantheon of his subordinates.
To the surprise of some, contemporary scholars argue that a distinct sense of monotheism lies at the heart of African traditional religion because these lesser deities have no power on their own and acquiesced to Oludumare’s will, similar to Jewish and Christian understandings of Yahweh’s sovereignty. Oludumare is revered for his justice and goodness, and according to Yoruba tradition, this omnipotent deity is all wise, all knowing, all seeing, and he never errs.
Another distinct feature of African traditional religion is the integral role of sacrifices in the life of Yoruba. Sacrifices were the manner they sought favor from a god and drove away evil spirits. To find favor from Olodumare, the intermediary deities require appeasement because, according to the Yoruba, no human has access to him.
Arguably, because of the transcendence of the great supreme deity and the institution of appeasing sacrifices, it would have been rudimentary for the West African mind to comprehend the functional role of Christ and his atoning sacrifice once and for all because in many ways West African spirituality shares foundational beliefs with Christianity.
The similarities to the Christian faith are so strong that theologian John Mbiti describes the God of the Bible as “none other than the God who is already known in the framework of traditional African religiosity.” Consequently, it wasn’t a quantum leap for our enslaved ancestors to transition to Christianity; rather, it was a logical step forward because they were prepared by their existing theological system.
It’s unfortunate that some urban Christians are leaving the faith for ancient African religions. It is even more heartbreaking when these individuals claim that their new faith corresponds better with their cultural sensibilities because the Christian theology is the realization of the truths that African spirituality points toward. While the traditional religion of our ancestors has some appeal, an honest assessment of the African traditional religious theological system displays the centrality of various Judeo-Christian concepts.
The gospel of Christ, in all of is beauty, clarifies African traditional religion by illustrating that there are no longer intermediaries between God and man; instead, the great, high God became a man and made an appeasing, once-for-all self-sacrifice so that humans do not have to continue to unsuccessfully appease his wrath. Jesus is ultimately the key to understanding West African faith, and we should embrace rather than abandon this loving deity.
Ernest Cleo Grant II (@iamernestgrant) is a pastor in Camden, New Jersey, a doctoral student, community advocate, and writer. He blogs at iamernestgrant.com.